Should You Discount Your Rates Or Offer Free Sessions?

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The fitness industry gets the shaft sometimes. It endures godawful long hours, we work when others don’t, there’s rarely (if ever) paid vacation, and there’s almost zero barrier to entry which allows a bunch of numbskulls to mess things up for everyone else.1

 

I can’t think of any other industry or profession where, more times than not, the expectation is potential patrons get to “sample” the service before they decide to purchase. Okay, admittedly, that 100% describes the process of purchasing a car. However that scenario is a little different. A car is merchandise. The fitness industry is a service industry.

I think it’s a fair question, and feel free to insert any other profession in place of dentist (it’s the first thing that came to my mind when I wrote the Tweet): lawyer, hair-stylist, plumber, tutor, financial advisor, professional Han Solo impersonator, anything.

I also think there’s no one correct answer and that whatever side of the fence you’re on – “yes, you should offer free consultations and services” or “hells-to-the-no you shouldn’t” – has it’s advantages and disadvantages. In fact, if there’s any question that deserves the canned “I don’t know” response it’s this one.

via GIPHY

However, upon further reflection I think the more germane response is…

“It Depends”

I remember when I was working at Sports Club LA (now Equinox) here in Boston back in 2006-2007 every new member received two “free” sessions with a trainer. I say “free” because the sessions were complimentary to the members but I was still compensated for my time. Not every chain does that of course, but you can bet they all have people on staff who’s sole job it is to sell, sell, sell and/or direct people towards the trainers. In Boston, like any major city, there are several notable, big chain commercial gyms vying for people’s attention (and wallets):

  • Equinox
  • Boston Sports Club
  • HealthWorks
  • LifeTime Fitness
  • 24 Hour Fitness
  • Golds
  • Planet Fitness
  • Beacon Hill Athletic Club

In addition there’s dozens of mid-level commercial gyms (not chains, but pretty big) peppered throughout the city, not mention a CrossFit box in every major neighborhood. That’s a lot of competition and it makes sense that many of them would offer a free consultation or discounted introductory rates on training to entice more people to join.

Copyright: wavebreakmediamicro / 123RF Stock Photo

Cressey Sports Performance business director, Pete Dupuis, discussed this very topic in THIS blog post, and one stat he brought up was that roughly 30% of people who are offered free consultations actually end up taking advantage of them. As Pete mentions:

“This may be a solid conversation rate from the perspective of the commercial gym owner, but not for the independent contractor who doesn’t see a single penny of the monthly membership dues these potential leads are paying.  A 30% conversion rate tells me that 7 out of 10 people decided that something for nothing was actually worth nothing.”

And that’s the thing: I don’t have the luxury of hundreds (if not thousands) of people paying a membership fee just to walk through the doors. Why would I offer my expertise and time for free when I have bills to pay?

Some people may counter with “well, if you offer free stuff it’s less intimidating and allows people to see whether or not you’re a good fit.”

There are a few points I’d like to offer here:

1. Again, try walking into a hair salon and asking someone for 30-60 minutes of their time in order to sample the goods and to see if “you’re a good fit.”

HAHAHAHAHAHA – no, seriously, do it.

2. This is my livelihood, not a garage sale.

3. Plus (and not that I would ever play this card), I’m Tony motherf****** Gentilcore. People, like, me. I’m cool as shit to hang out with. Deadlifts, EDM, and random 90’s Mariah Carey trivia? Who wouldn’t pay for that…;o)

4. When does it stop? You offer a friend a discount and then what? Discounts for life? The mailman trains for free?

Worse you offer one person a discount or free sessions and another client catches wind who didn’t receive the same discount and now things are going to get weird. It’s best to just draw the line in the sand and take pride in your rates.

5. As my boy Dean Somerset has noted: free stuff isn’t the same thing as free training. I have over 1,900 blog posts on this site that are free and will help point people in the right direction in terms of training advice. Please, peruse away. That takes zero of my time.

However, time = money. If you want that it’s only fair to be compensated for it.

6. With regards to free consultations specifically, here’s the deal: that’s my assessment. I’m not taking 60 minutes just to show someone how to put the pins into the machines or to gossip about who’s banging who on WestWorld.

I’m taking that time to dive deep into someone’s unique injury history, discuss goals, using screens to assess movement quality, and taking the opportunity to see how much (if anything) I need to clean up with regards to exercise technique. All of that is information I use to write an individualized program. There’s value in that, not to mention a college degree, a CSCS certification I need to work at to maintain, and years of continuing education. If there’s any time left over, cool, lets discuss robots banging each other. I’m down.

Other Miscellaneous Things I Want to Say, But Have No Idea How to Put Them In Coherent Order.

  • I’d be remiss not to say this: Have a filter. Experience matters in this context. If you are in fact a new coach/trainer there is going to be a degree of doing stuff you’d rather not do. The entitlement that permeates with new trainers entering this industry is dumbfounding. There will be times you may have to offer your time for free or offer discounts in order to get more eyes in front of you. It’s not beneath you to do so. Moreover, you may end up working for a year (or longer) earning “beginner” wages. It’s part of the gig. Suck it up.
  • What about online stuff and emails? I take a lot of pride in that I try to answer every email sent my way. I think there’s huge value with interacting with your audience and not being an uppity dick. I’m not that much of an a-hole that I can’t take a few minutes to answer someone’s question. Where it becomes absurd is when one question turns into 17, or someone sends an email that would rival War and Peace in length. I ain’t got time for that.

  • I feel strongly there needs to be some form of “buy in” for the person to take things seriously in the first place. If the session(s) are free and there’s no penalty (loss of $$) on their end to 1) show up and/or 2) be accountable there’s less likelihood they’re going to be invested in the process.
  • This is NOT to say I don’t feel there’s value in offering discounted training/rates sometimes. The peeps over at Mark Fisher Fitness are huge proponents of offering special one-time only offers of 20-25% off packages when people attend a special bootcamp or class. I like this idea! If you’re already making the time to be at a certain place at a certain time, go for it. Offer free shit. Make it a special charity bootcamp or, I don’t know, just because it’s Thursday. MFF’s rule is run the class, get people’s names, offer the offer, stalk them for 30 days with emails and phone calls, but after that stop.
  • Understandably, there are some commercial gym trainers who are stuck between a rock and hard-place who receive minimal help from management in terms of client referrals. In this scenario I sense some value in offering free classes or sessions. If it’s a matter of getting more eyes in front of you I’d suggest offering 15-30 minute workshops or hands-on sessions during your floor hours where you go over core training, fat-loss strategies, or maybe offer exercise technique tutorials. Here people can get a flavor for how you roll and decide if you’re a good match or not. You totally are by the way.

Have some of your own advice to offer? Please chime in below or on the Facebook feed. I know many people have different perspectives and ideas on this topic and I have no doubts others can and will benefit from your experiences.

UPDATE

I should address a common theme I see popping up from people who oppose my view point. And that is: “I want my plumber to come and fix the toilet and that’s it. There’s more to the conversation when you factor in client-trainer relationships and the importance of rapport.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Which is why I refrain from pressuring people into purchasing large blocks of training up front. You want to talk intimidating? That’s intimidating.

“Hi, we just met and I spent 30 minutes gently tapping your glutes, want to hang out more? That’ll be $1200 for 30 sessions mmmmkay?”

Stealing another train of thought from Pete Dupuis, I’d rather earn my client’s business month to month. I only offer monthly plans. That’s a more palatable pill to swallow for most people. And, on the off-chance someone doesn’t like my glowing personality (and sweet He-Man references) or feels we’re not a long-term match, I am totally cool refunding their unused sessions. That’s just Business 101. And not sucking as a human being.

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  1. We get to wear sweatpants to work everyday, though. So everything evens out in the end.

  • This is me speaking as a potential client. A free session might encourage me to go with a trainer over another because funds are limited. I find otherwise that you are expected to sign up for a block of sessions or a monthly direct debit. That is a risk as they often will not issue refunds.If I don’t like a hairdresser I can just not go back or cancel my appointment. And they often offer a free consultation even if they do not do anything to your hair. My husband used to work as a hypnotherapist and it was almoat assumed he would offer a free consultation to discuss possible treatment options and see if both feel they could work together. I don’t want to sign up to anything that is costing a lot of money that I have no chance of getting back only to find the person I’m working is a complete arse or we don’t get on. Training more than anything else relies on a good relationship between client and service giver. Not offering free sessions will put some off, that’s how it is.

    That said, people don’t offer free stuff as a rule. I am the exception to that but many aren’t as bothered unless they have the financial commitment.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Those are all fair points Kate. Speaking personally, I don’t offer “blocks” of training because I find that IS intimidating. I’d rather earn someone’s business month to month than toss this massive number their way on Day #1 (30 sessions for $1000, or whatever). That said, too, I am totally cool with offering someone’s money back if they feel it’s not a good fit. Or, I’d just have them try out one of the coaches who sub-lease under me.

      Awesome discussion point for sure.

  • Shamwow

    I recently attended a talk from Chick-fil-A’s (now retired) VP of Marketing. Chick-fil-A doesn’t given any discounts on anything, ever. (They will, however, give out coupons for free items.) Their opinion is that when you discount something you change its value. A $5 chicken sandwich that has a $1 off coupon, or a first-responders’ discount is no longer looked at by everyone else as a $5 product. Yes, brass will give out coupons for free sandwiches, but that is not a regular occurrence. Bottom line, it’s a solid business practice to maintain the value of your service by not offering discounts.

  • I’m passionately against discounted or free if communicated that way but I am for giving away money while maintaining an appropriate valuation. A discount or percentage of is almost always a bad idea. Giving away a gift card for $100 (or whatever the cost of a session is) and having them redeem it (just like they would a gift card to a clothing store) is a different ballgame. These gift cards now have value, get passed along as gifts, and intuitively communicate the value of your services even to new clients. You could give these out to charity events for silent auctions, for example.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Agree 100% Jon. In the 6 months that I have had CORE I have already given several of my clients $10 Starbucks gift cards just cause. I’ll also figure out what threshold someone needs to hit (# of sessions) in order to receive a free session. It’s the least I can do to show my appreciation and to let my clients know they mean a lot to me.

  • Piper Harris

    I REALLY appreciate this!

    So, many times I’m asked for a free session, for some I may, others maybe not. It’s all dependent on the person who calls to interview me and I’m interviewing them!

    I run a SMALL studio where class sizes are capped, what I’ve run into is the complete lack of respect for showing up or giving me a shout out. I started charging no shows, I had a few women cuss me out & ask for a full explanation (even tho they agreed to it in their paperwork). I have only been open since June and learned recently, starting out by giving freebies bites you in the ass.

    I started giving the “whys” feeling like “oh maybe I should explain so they arent mad” and just the other day as I’m preparing for 2017 programming, planning my CEU’s, purchasing new equipment, etc I thought (which by the way is HARDLY paid for by my wages) I thought : “screw them!” It’s my BUSINESS, if you don’t like it great, go somewhere else. I deserve just as much respect as a dentist, plumber, hair stylist, you name it.

    Awesome post, thanks again!

    • TonyGentilcore

      I LOVE it Piper. Charging clients for no-shows can be tricky. It’s rabbit hole for sure. I treat it case by case personally. But like you I make sure to let them know there is a cancellation policy in place. Most are more than willing to comply with it. As you know, some people just don’t get it.

  • slantner

    Hey Tony, Great topic, and I’m with you 100%. As a piano teacher (oh right, that guy), I’ve had many people ask for freebies. And just like with what you do, the first meeting requires a lot of work and attention with assessments. Even if it doesn’t end up being a perfect fit, chances are a client/student will get something out of an initial meeting by getting a different perspective, so there’s no reason to not pay the full ticket price.
    And from another perspective, having owned a rental property, there is a certain segment of the population that will always look for a discount, and from my experience those folks are best avoided.
    People who are not willing to pay the going rate don’t value the product, whether it’s a vacation home in FL or the expertise of a trained professional. The fact is that any personal improvement that involves a weekly commitment (personal trainer, music lesson, psychotherapy, etc) is not going to be cheap. The money that changes hands represents the value that is being placed on the work, and commitment that the person is willing to make to the process.

    • TonyGentilcore

      YES, exactly. I like that Slanter. Even if someone doesn’t end up purchasing after the initial assessment, the chances he or she will learn something and take something of value way is very high. Good point!

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